Single-Solution Christian Formation is Guaranteed to Fail

Single-Solution Christian Formation is Guaranteed to Fail January 12, 2015

In the on-going conversation on what works, and what doesn’t, in youth ministry, here are two threads, seemingly disparate, that share what I propose is the #1 fallacy we Catholics cling to when it comes to Christian formation:

What’s the common fallacy I see here, there, and everywhere?  The notion that there’s some kind of single-solution method we could employ that would fix our crisis, if only we found it.

This is not the way the human soul works.  At the risk of causing felt banners to unfurl: We are each a unique work of art.  Body and soul joined together in the image of God, but each of us expressing that Image in a time, place, and manner distinct from what has ever been before or will be again.

What’s a Catholic to do?

I see so many pastors, youth ministers, and DRE’s struggling to be everything to everyone.  What’s the perfect RCIA program that will meet the needs of the immigrant couple in the irregular marriage, the Pentecostal convert who’s freaked out by Marian apparitions, and the PhD who’s just doing it for his wife, and spends the whole class staring at his phone, checking his e-mail and reading papal encyclicals?

How do you make a confirmation class for the kid who was dragged out by his mother under pain of losing video game privileges, the one who loves Jesus but doesn’t read books without pictures, and the one who knew all the answers back in second grade, and still does?

You can’t.  You cannot.  The very notion that any one evangelist or catechist could come up with a way to meet the genuine spiritual needs of every parishioner in a sacramental bracket is ludicrous.

So why do we keep trying to do the one thing that we can be 100% sure will not work, and we have ample data to prove it?

Because it’s easy.

It’s easy to offer a program and call it “formation.”

Also, it’s lying.

If we care about human souls, we have to quit lying.

Programs are Good at What They Do

I’m the kind of person who goes around recommending favorite religious-education textbooks, so clearly I do not think the solution is to ban programs.  I enroll my kids in programs.  I teach programs.   I do these things because they are valuable in their proper place.

Parishes should have programs.  We should take an inventory of the talent we have on hand to teach and to minister to others, and the needs expressed by our parishioners, and try to offer this or that class, small group, lecture series, video course, mentoring program, retreat, apostolate, or you-name-it that we are able to offer and that seems to fill needs.

But this must not come at the price of treating the souls who present themselves for the sacraments as if they are products on an assembly line.  The answer isn’t, “Okay, if you want Sacrament X then you’ll need to complete Program A.”  Rather, watch the subtle difference, our response should be, “Ah, so you’re preparing for Sacrament X, then?  Okay. Well, many people find Program A helpful, and you might enjoy it.  But let me hear a little bit more about you, and your story, and let’s figure out what you still need to do to prepare, and to what extent you’re already prepared.”

Radical Change Requires Mature Christians

This approach of actually finding out about a person’s spiritual needs and trying to meet them is crazy.  It’s the kind of thing that you would only do if you were serious about the care of human souls.  It’s also something that requires way more manpower than, “Please fill out this pink registration form and attend at least 20/24 class sessions, that’ll be a $90 materials fee, please.”  At all but the smallest parishes, a single director of religious education can’t possibly usher every single applicant through a personalized course of Christian formation.  The phone calls alone would kill you.

What you need to make this happen are mature Christians.  Grown-up disciples who can be trusted to help others along their way.  The obvious adult to assist a child is the child’s parent.  Parents and other adults, meanwhile, can be assisted by fellow Christians who are not so much experts at every aspect of Christian formation as they are charitable, common-sense helpers who can assist a newer Christian in picking his way through all the options.

This is new territory.  To say, “You ought to actually know the person to whom you are giving the sacraments of initiation,” is practically heresy in this day.  Isn’t that what the envelope system is for?

Our reliance on programs, I theorize, is due to the reality that pastors have good reasons not to trust their parishioners.  Imagine asking a priest, “Do you know ten adults in your parish whom you could trust to assist other members of the congregation in figuring out how to prepare for the sacraments?  Not actually teach this or that class, but just to be able to help them figure out what they need to do in order to prepare, and help them to find sources for that needed preparation?”

I think many priests would give that a firm No without a moment’s hesitation.  Which of course means, in turn, that our programs are being taught by people who can’t actually be trusted with the mentoring of another Christian.

The babying has got to stop.  Infants can’t be parents.  If our parishes are perpetually filled with spiritual infants, our parishes will soon be empty.  And indeed in many places they are.


Artwork:Benozzo Gozzoli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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